Not withstanding its remarkable conservation saga, Bhutan continues to grapple with a serious man-elephant conflict. Ironically, the cause of the conflict has nothing to do with any lapse on Bhutan’s part; rather, it is the rampant deforestation in the Assam side along the Indo-Bhutan border that has triggered the conflict.
“It’s true that Bhutan is witnessing a man-elephant conflict in some of its border areas with Assam. This may not yet be as intense as it is in Assam but it is a definite cause of worry,” Sonam Wangdi, a representative from the Department of Forest and Park Services, Bhutan, told The Assam Tribune.
While human fatalities resulting from the man-elephant conflict have been extremely rare, repeated raids on cropland have emerged as a disturbing concern. The Bhutan authorities attribute this phenomenon to ‘habitat degradation in India’ and ‘large-scale tea plantation’.
“From the point of human or elephant casualties, the situation is not quite alarming but we cannot afford to take it lightly. Elephant raids on cropland have been a regular occurrence,” said Wangdi who was here to attend the Eastern Himalayan Naturenomics Forum.
According to Wangdi, the Assam Forest authorities need to take the matter of deforestation inside Assam along the Assam-Bhutan border seriously. “The ongoing deforestation has to be checked and degraded forest habitat regenerated. We do have a joint mechanism with wildlife NGOs and the Assam Forest Department for joint trans-boundary management in a few areas. There is a need to strengthen and expand the collaboration,” he added.
The conflict escalates in Bhutan during the period from March to September coinciding with the cropping season.
Conservationists from both Bhutan and Assam have been calling for formation of an uninterrupted green corridor – as part of enhanced trans-border cooperation in conservation – by according protection to the contiguous belts of forests in the three countries of Bhutan, India and Myanmar for securing a vast elephant habitat. This, in fact, had been conceived decades back but failed to materialise for want of ‘political will’.
“Bhutan shares a long international border with Assam, and the Assam side of the border which is fast parting with its green cover has been the nerve-centre of the escalating man-elephant conflict. This, in turn, is triggering a similar conflict situation in Bhutan, with more and more elephant herds moving to the Bhutan side in search for space and food,” a conservationist working in the north bank of the Brahmaputra said.
The Bhutan jungles shelter some 800 elephants across an elephant habitat of 2,000 sq ft. Elephants are known to move up to altitudes as high as 3,000 metres.